It was rather fascinating to be in the middle of a posh hotel in Noida and know that 20 years ago, there was a Triple Caution point in the Himalayan Rally just 200 metres from where I sat. The 2016 Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm has come a long way and like Noida, the rally has changed. The event has gotten bigger and tougher over the years with this edition covering over 2,200km. 12 of the 13 stages were brand new too. This year, in the interest of safety, the organisers had also provided a GPS tracking device for every competitor's vehicle. This was a gradual change of circumstances of course, but there are obviously other more unpredictable and immediate changes in motorsport. Change can come flying out of a blind corner and hit you so hard, you won't even know it's happened until the dust has settled. As was the case of Aabhishek Mishra and his co-driver PV Srinivas Murthy this year, one minute you're leading the rally, and in the next, you're crawling out of a wreck. But I'm going to save that bit for later.
Aabhishek Mishra making his way through the first leg of the rally
A new layout for the rally, meant that it would start from Hanumangarh instead of Sardarshahar and end at Jodhpur instead of Jaipur. I'm sure that Hanumangarh, a typical Rajasthani town, is usually a peaceful place. But on the first day of the 2016 Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm, the entire town resonated with the sounds of loud rally-spec cars and bikes. There were some locals that seemed to thoroughly enjoy this commotion, while there were others that cringed and tsk tsk-ed every time a loud Gypsy went by.
Once the convoy moved out of the village, I had to find a good spot for our photographers, Ishaan Bhataiya and Madhavan Pillai to set up. It was the desert though, so I couldn't just wander off in a two-wheel drive vehicle. I loaded the GPS coordinates of the rally onto my phone and searched for a spot where the route of the stage intersected with anything close to an actual road. The Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm was a great way for me to see the hinterlands of Rajasthan, untouched by time. Dirt or tarmac, I had to get as far as I could and then hike the rest of the way on foot. In the first leg, the road got me as close as 700 metres to the stage. In leg 5, it was a full 2 kilometres away.
CS Santosh was almost untouchable throughout the rally and by Leg 5, he had a 44 minute lead
In the first stage, the nearest connection was somewhere near the halfway point and CS Santosh was the first person to be flagged off. We made it in time to catch him in action, and then every other competitor as well. The spot we found was by a sharp right-hander followed by a clean stretch. Although the first half of motorcyclists got through quite easily, the second half weren't so lucky. All of the participants who had gone ahead had dug up the sand and that made getting stuck there inevitable. The cars, of course, had bigger tyres which made it easier as long as they carried momentum.
Amanpeet Ahuwalia and Virendar Kashyap managed to hold their position throughout the rally
After it was all done, we packed up and left for Bikaner. When the results were announced, Santosh, as expected, was leading the Moto category by two minutes, while R Nataraj and Aravind KP were second and third. In the Xtreme category, it was hard to speculate as to who would lead - Mishra and Murthy or Suresh Rana and Ashwin Naik. But it was Mishra who was at the top, five minutes ahead of Rana.
This leg would host just one stage, but it would be the longest and possibly most gruelling in the rally, with a 185km run through the desert. There was just one service point, because the organisers didn't want to lose most of the competitors this early in the rally." So off they went into the desert, and off I went on tarmac to catch them at the 90km point. We set up where the rally stage crosses over a patch of tarmac road, and leads back into the desert sand. In this leg, the cars were flagged off first, and Mishra went flying past us while Rana fell behind. By the end of this leg, Mishra had a 14 minute lead.
Suresh Rana and Ashwin Naik couldn't quite get ahead of Aabhishek Mishrain the initial stages of the rally
CS Santosh made good progress, and increased his lead to around 22 minutes. Aravind KP, who seemed to be pushing quite hard during the stage, made his way up to second.
With the stage completed and the photographers content, we made our way back to the hotel. I tried to clean up as best as I could before dinner, but there was no escaping the sand. It was everywhere - in my shoes, in my hair, in my clothes and even in my ears. In fact, now that I think about it, my meals were almost always a little extra crunchy too. I gave up and headed for dinner, where I had some time to think about the scale of the rally.
Aravind KP managed to get to second place after Leg 2
The Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm has grown to become one of the largest motorsport events in the country alongside the Raid de Himalaya and the Dakshin Dare. It's quite a spectacle to see how events like these bring together people with different cultures from all across the country in the name of motorsport.
It was an early start for us. There were three stages, with the first one being a night stage that went live at 3:30am. This meant that I'd have to wake up at 1:00am to get to the intersection of choice. We made it there with plenty of time to simply sit down and stargaze. The bikes skipped this stage, and soon, we saw Mishra's Grand Vitara in the distance with Rana approaching from behind. Clearly he had made up some time in this stage.
Eventually, one of the participants got a little lost and took the wrong route. Soon there were others, confused by the multiple sets of tyre tracks, who went around 50 metres the wrong way before realising their mistake. I stood in the darkness and chuckled shamelessly. Meanwhile, another competitor missed a turn and almost ran straight into Ishaan. Fearing more for his cameras than for his life, Ishaan retreated behind the safety of a wall.
The night stages required extra caution. One small mistake and you could lose a lot of time trying to find your way
Once all the participants had crossed us, we hung around till sunrise, which was beautiful, and then hit the road. We skipped the second stage and caught the rally in SS 3. Once we set up, Madhavan walked further down the stage to find a good spot while I stayed in the comfort of the car and watched the rally from a distance. After a couple of competitors went by, I got a call from Madhavan. You have to get to the marshal," he said, urgently. There's a guy on a tractor heading straight down the road towards the oncoming cars. And he refuses to get off the road! Go and inform the marshal now!"
The nearest marshal was around 150 metres away and I ran up and informed him of the situation. Because he was stationed at a Stop and Go intersection, he couldn't leave his post, but said that he would inform the drivers.
There were teams driving all sorts of cars like rally-spec Mitsubishi Pajero Sports, Polaris RZR 800s and even modified Chevrolet Foresters. However, by the end of the rally, it was the Maruti Grand Vitaras and the Gypsys that came out on top
On my way back, I saw the man on the tractor ploughing down the middle of the track, Hindi music blaring from a speaker. I pulled him over to the side, and with my limited Hindi vocabulary and hand gestures tried to explain the situation to him. Bhaiya! Abhi gaadi bahuth fast mein aatha hei. Please, side mein jaao."
Confused by my gestures and disgusted by my Hindi, the man on the tractor started his rant. It was loud, fast and I'm pretty sure abusive as well. Clearly he was not going to listen. After a minute of listening to him, I simply walked away while he continued to cuss.
Things could have gone horribly wrong, but fortunately they didn't. Rallying in the desert is quite tricky and you can only do so much to prevent such things from going wrong. But that's not much comfort when you're taking a blind corner at around 90kph on dirt.
This leg was quite short, with just one stage held in the morning. However, it was in this stage that the participants were faced with the larger sand dunes. This time the road ended quite far from the stage and it was too hot to walk all the way. I took the car in as far as I dared, and hiked the rest. The track crossed a large sand dune, and that was going to be quite tricky. Most of the motorcycles got through without much trouble, but by the time the cars reached, the sand had been dug loose.
Mishra seemed to get through easily with Rana hot on his tail. Mishra was under pressure and seemed to be pushing a little too hard. By the end of Leg 4, his lead was reduced to just 10 minutes. CS Santosh meanwhile, was in a league of his own, and had managed to extend his lead to 44 minutes.
After the first couple of cars went through the dunes, the sand got quiteloose. If driversdidn't keep momentum, they would certainly be bogged down
Split into two halves - A and B - this leg had four stages. The first half held two stages in the day, while the second half held the same stages in reverse at night. We found that the second stage went through an abandoned village near Sam. The closest road was a two kilometre walk through the sand dunes. Madhavan, the photographic opportunist that he is, wasn't going to let this one go. So we loaded our bags with all the water it could hold, and headed into the desert. Ironically, the village we went to was abandoned five years ago because it ran out of water.
From the nearest marshal we heard that Mishra had rolled his car earlier in the stage and PV Srinivas Murthy had been hospitalised. Rana had been catching up with him and there was a lot of pressure to make every second count. Fortunately, Rana and the competitors that followed, stopped and helped the two out of the car, before continuing the stage.
The service crews were in a race of their own. They had to make it to the end of each SS to be able to service the vehicles in time
Santosh meanwhile, was leading the Moto category quite comfortably. However, just when it looked like he was untouchable, he made a mistake. In the second night stage, Santhosh didn't stop at Passage Control point. He was awarded a one hour penalty, and that reduced his 44 minute lead to just seven minutes. There was still hope for Aravind to win the title, with two stages left.
The next morning, we were informed that the second stage of the day was cancelled because the stage went past a temple and it was Navratri. It was going to be tough, a little too tough for Aravind now. With just one stage, it was easy to tell who would win - Rana and Santosh. We got our last chunk of photographs and made our way to the end of the rally in Jodhpur. By the end of the rally, only 71 teams managed to cross the finish line of the 106 that were flagged off from Noida. Of the 106 teams that entered, there were 13 women on the list, which is the highest number in the rally so far.
On the way back to Delhi, I thought a lot about the significance of change. The outcome can be something as drastic as packing up an entire village to find water, or as unfortunate as rolling your car and losing a rally. It can come out of anywhere - a flaming car or a tractor in a blind corner. The only thing certain about change is that it will always be around. Motorsport events like the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm teach you to simply roll with the punches and keep moving when the sands get deep.